Asking For It by Louise O’Neill


Louise O’Neill’s novel, Asking For It, is hard-hitting, frightening and all-too-real.

The story opens with a conversation between a group of teenage girls – they’re discussing school, exams, boyfriends and parties – the usual stuff, however it quickly reveals the pecking order among the girls and it’s eighteen year old Emma, who’s on top.

Emma is beautiful, confident, nasty and manipulative. Her ‘friends’ are more like followers and she takes advantage of them at any opportunity. She flirts, drinks, parties hard, steals boyfriends, has casual sex.

“Boys with girlfriends are my favourite. You don’t have to worry that they’re going to tell tales afterwards.”

And then Emma is gang-raped at a party. And the rapists, who happen to be the town football stars, take explicit photos of the unconscious Emma and post them on Facebook.

O’Neill could have simply led the reader down a well-worn path – that Emma was ‘asking for it’, on account of being drunk, wearing a revealing dress, having already had consensual sex that night – but by making her character so unlikable, there’s a suggested (but not articulated) whiff of ‘she deserved it’. The combined result is an extremely confronting and powerful story that has a realistic and thought-provoking ending.

“You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like rape rape.”

There’s so much I could say about this book, but first, this:


I wish this book wasn’t topical. I wish we didn’t have to fictionalise these kinds of stories to begin conversations with teens (or adults). I wish that everyone agreed that the only thing that causes rape is rapists. But while there’s even a hint of blame on the victims of rape; just the whisper of the words ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘well, what did she think would happen…?’ we will continue to have a society that excuses violent and criminal behaviour. And shit like this will keep happening.

This book is extremely well-written (and far more realistic than a similar story I read earlier in the year, Viral). O’Neill’s language is accurate, believable and horrifying without relying on ‘shock’ scenes that are blatantly graphic. In fact, it’s her use of repeated imagery and phrases that stand out, playing over and over again for the reader, as they would in Emma’s mind.

“I see the photos etched through the thin veil of my eyelids… Pink flesh. Splayed legs. Slut, bitch, whore.”

O’Neill manages to ask the hard questions and expose the common prejudices about rape in this story. They’re not new ideas but the character of Emma gives them shape and perhaps a starting point for conversations about rape and rape culture. Importantly, the story also covers the associated issues of slut shaming, victim blaming, consent, bullying and peer pressure.

4/5 Frighteningly real (and I wish it wasn’t so).

I received my copy of  Asking For It from the publisher, Quercus Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and the Melburnian winter – the results for the day I finished this book (July 4): Belfast 10°-15°, Melbourne 10°-17°.

18 responses

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  2. I have this on my TBR and I’m very keen to read it. Have you read Nina Is Not OK by Shappi Khorsandi? The protagonist of that is raped but doesn’t even consider calling it rape. Khorsandi gives her a drink problem too which means she can look at situations Nina is in and force the reader to confront their own ideas/opinions around Nina’s behaviour and the behaviour of the boys and men she meets. I was raging mad for most of it as so few of the male characters question whether they should have sex with her when she’s clearly drunk.

    • I haven’t read Nina is Not OK but it sounds similar – an important scene in this story is when the word ‘rape’ is mentioned for the first time. There’s also a date-rape sub-plot involving one of her friends that, in less skilled hands, might have seemed as if it was pushing the point, but O’Neill executes it brilliantly and it gives greater context to Emma’s situation and the aftermath with her friends.

      The rapists are the obvious targets but O’Neill manages to direct your anger at Emma’s parents and other adults in her life. Without giving too much away, it’s the casual remarks such as “She doesn’t need an STI test because they were good local boys…” (or words to that effect) that made my blood boil. Again, all the crap we saw trotted out during the Stanford case.

      There’s only so many of these types of stories that you can read within a short space of time without becoming distressed but I do commend this one on the sobering ending.

  3. I read Only Ever Yours this summer, and it was so upsetting to me that I hated the book while recognizing that it was a very good book. I think the fact that I had read MANY upsetting books in a row (not purposely) in which characters were powerless and abused and you knew it wasn’t going to change (not in that book, and probably not in your own world). I’m not sure I could stomach this novel right now. When all the news stories about that swimmer who raped a woman were all over the news, I felt sick every time I got in the pool for my aquacize class, as if pools had something to do with it. Here’s a link to my review of Only Ever Yours, if you are interested:

    • It was actually your review of her first book (and our subsequent SVH discussion) that reminded me I had this one in the TBR stack. Obviously not an enjoyable’ read but very well written.

  4. I’ve seen this one on a ton of must read lists but I’ve been unsure. I completely agree with you, it is very sad that we have to fictionalize these stories in order to make this a topic for conversation. I’m not sure this is one I’ll ever want to pick up but I might have to anyways. Great review.

  5. This sounds really interesting. I particularly like the idea that the main character is not necessarily a likable person, so readers (and other characters, I assume) have to get over the fact that your personality has very little to do with whether you deserved to be the victim of a crime. I think if the author can make readers sympathize with an unlikable character in this situation, not just a charming one, the message could be that more powerful for readers.

    Though I do think the majority of people are against rape, I am always surprised to encounter an not insignificant amount of people who sincerely don’t see what’s wrong. I believe there was a real life case similar to the one you describe in the novel here a couple years ago, and I was reading a post by an author about it. She got a decent amount of people, even teenage boys, who commented just saying they didn’t see the situation as rape. It was a little frightening to be honest. I somehow doubt this type of person is likely to read books like this one, however, so who knows what will eventually change their minds?

  6. I want to read this, but I know it will make me angry. (As it should.)

    Also, the answer to the question “What did she expect?” (from drinking too much) is a hangover. That’s what she expected. I hate that question, it’s like we shouldn’t expect common decency or humane behavior.

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